[11.12.06] [Andrew Gallix]
3:AM Review: Extended Play
"Considering the EP format flourished in the punk era, it is fitting that Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers introduces the collection. He writes: 'Songs and music have often been inspired by literature and here, within these pages, the literature is conversely inspired by songs and music. It only remains to be seen how the writers' imaginations trigger the imagination of each reader. In theory there are no limits'." Susan Tomaselli reviews Extended Play
"Writing/talking about music is like dancing about architecture -- it's a really stupid thing to want to do". Whether it was Elvis Costello or Laurie Anderson (her riposte: "Mine's a square dance") who uttered those words isn't important. A bold satement, but you get the point: trying to write on music (particularly pop music which is intended to be disposable) is not so much a stupid thing to do, but a difficult thing to do, and to do well. Lester Bangs did it, Jon Savage did it, as did Greil Marcus, Nick Tosches, Simon Reynolds and even Harvey Pekar. In fiction Irvine Welsh has pulled it off; Haruki Murakami and Jack Kerouac both get away with it by carefully weaving music into the fabric of their works, without the books descending into Nick Hornby-style lists.
For Extended Play, a new anthology from Elastic Press, editor Gary Couzens doesn't do dance (not even a square one). Instead, he leaves it to the nine authors -- some previously published, others not -- selected by open submission to write longer-than-usual stories, hence the book's name. Vinyl aficionados will already be familiar with the Extended play (EP) format, but for those who aren't an EP is a 45 rpm recording on a 7" and contains around four tracks. Considering the EP format flourished in the punk era, it is fitting that Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers introduces the collection. He writes: "Songs and music have often been inspired by literature and here, within these pages, the literature is conversely inspired by songs and music. It only remains to be seen how the writers' imaginations trigger the imagination of each reader. In theory there are no limits."
Burnel has set the bar quite high. The brief was "music" in all its forms, so there are many genres covered, written in different styles. Marion Arnott's "Little Drummer Boy", has only the loosest connection to music -- a kid suffering domestic transfers the wild beating of his heart to a drum in the school play -- yet it is a strong story to start with; she is a compelling short-story teller. Nels Stanley sticks to the task a little more; his story, "Some Obscure Lesion of the Heart" is about that breed sometimes described as failed musicians themselves: the rock critic. He takes us to murky musical venues, through the previous evening's excesses, the disappointments of the least talented getting all the breaks, while he himself is searching for a connection with another person.
Philip Raines and Harvey Welles take us to another concert venue, the Glasgow Barrowlands, host to many a legendary performance but in their tale, the velvet curtains are being stripped from the old ballroom, "the lightbulbs cored out of its famous neon sign, and the demolition experts move in to check stress points in the structure". Urban regeneration means the Barra has to make way for the new, but not before one final, euphoric gig. "First Last and Always", written by Emma Lee, has post-punk band The Sisters of Mercy providing the soundtrack to her life, the ultimate concert setlist in her head and opening her up to love, heartbreak, with the suggestion of happiness in the final refrains.
Rosanne Rabinowitz's "In The Pines" masterfully connects three episodes to that Leadbelly song, two of which overlap and one of which is set in 2015 were a band, M-Theories want to put the physics back into music, reconnecting the broken link between science and art. Also presumed to be set in the future, though it has an old-fashioned feel, is Tim Nickels' excellent "Fight Music" were a war is waging and girls are trained in the Conservatorie and deployed as the weapons. The title to Tony Richards' "A Night In Tunisia" is a giveaway to the subject matter, jazz: "music, rather like life, [that] isn't just the formless, spur-of-the-moment mess it at first seems to be". By far the creepiest story in Extended Play is Andrew Humphrey's "Last Song", a tale of two brothers who meet a girl performing at an open-mike session, their relationships opening old wounds and dark secrets. "Tremolando" is Becky Done's first published story, a little hard to believe as it is one of the most satisfying of the lot. Written as a movement, it recalls the Welsh writer Dorothy Edwards' interwoven short stories on lost love and music.
The biggest thrill of all is that in between each long story are short bursts from musicians writing on literature. You have Gary "Snow Patrol" Lightbody comparing Seamus Heaney to Nirvana (yes really: "Cobain's music was visceral and furious at times but it belied his egg-shell heart and I found some of the same contradictions in Heaney"); Rebekah Delgado from Ciccone on (amongst other writers) Philip Larkin's iambic pentameter; Tall Poppies on Oscar Wilde, whose Dorian Gray "had a poisonous affect on our songwriting".
Despite betraying the lack of development in reading matter (the choices come across as stuff from school), their contributions provide light relief from some of the darker stories, none more than The Boy Least Likely To's Jof Owen, a combo described by Rolling Stone as "if all your childhood stuffed animals got together and started a band," who appositely prefers animal stories: "maybe it's because I often feel at such a distance from the rest of humanity, or maybe I'm just more like a tortoise than I am a man," he writes. Of the young Turks, Iain Ross from Bearsuit turns in the most amusing book report, deciding he's going to write lyrics to better the Great English Novel: "Martin Amis:move aside, Will Self: shut it, Dickens: do one ... but then I realised that, despite even having once written a song (drinkink) extolling the virtues of devouring literature till it leaks from your very pores, I've barely read a whole book, I'm a fraud".
Sean Mackowiak (Mercury Rev) writes a moving eulogy to late Beat poet, Robert Creeley: "His innocent, ideal words proposed that he and his readers (or listeners) play out a rapprochement together, just as Ornette Coleman's Congeniality does with sound. The moment of self-discovery often leads to a collective discovery; the impermanence of permanence". Chris T-T tells us his "musical composition is basic, using a box of melodic, rhythmic and sonic tricks, plus a fairly limited ability with structure, to build tracks," but lyrically would like to match Haruki Murakmai's After the Quake. Spooky punk rock/new wave survivor, Lene Lovich writes one of the quietest moments here, "Half Magic", a piece that recalls visiting "the holy place" of a library as a child. "I sing about the things I see in my head and my problems with communicating and other things too. Reading about strange happenings and unusual characters has always made me feel better," she writes.
While the majority of the musicians will be familiar to only UK audiences, Chris Stein of Blondie is a name most will recognise. He takes us through the Lower East Side of New York, his old stomping ground in his Blondie years, but now transformed into "an alternate universe, a somehow flattened and cleansed version of its former self" where everyone is hip: "hipness is marketed and sold to the masses at crazily inflated prices, it used to not cost anything to be hip, in fact paying for it was contrary to the ideal".
To paraphrase one of the authors, the stories in Extended Play are eclectic, experimental, and though some are better than others, they are almost always interesting. Like its subject matter, Extended Play is a diverse book and the beauty of it is, that if you don't connect with a particular story in the collection, lift the needle and drop it on the next.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika.
Read an interview with her here.